New Zealand 375 (Latham 105, Mitchell 73, Watling 55, Broad 4-73) and 211 for 2 (Williamson 96*, Taylor 84*) lead England 476 (Root 226, Burns 101, Pope 75, Wagner 5-124) by 110 runs
Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor capitalised on an end-of-term vibe on the final day at Hamilton, batting through the morning session – with the aid of some notable let-offs from England’s fielders – to all but ensure that New Zealand will claim the spoils in this two-Test series, thanks to their innings victory at Mount Maunganui last week.
By lunch, Williamson was 96 and Taylor 84, having brought up his 7000th Test run, and his 1000th at Seddon Park. They had begun the day with their side in a small amount of strife, still trailing by five runs overnight and knowing that a flurry of early wickets could yet have given England a chance to put their foot in the door on the final day of the series.
That prospect never materialised, as the combination of a lifeless wicket and a tired England attack combined to give both men a chance to bed in from the outset. Apart from the chance to close out a notable series win, the partnership, 183 by the break, was a vital chance for New Zealand’s two senior batsmen to get time in the middle before their next big encounter – the first Test against Australia in Perth that gets underway in just over a week’s time.
England opened their day’s work with Sam Curran and Ben Stokes in harness, the latter opting for a short-pitch assault from round the wicket to cramp both batsman for room. That tactic might have reaped an early reward in the fourth over of the day, when Williamson – on 39 – gloved a lifter down the leg side. Unfortunately, Ollie Pope behind the stumps was too flat-footed to take advantage, tumbling late to his left and shelling the opportunity.
If that was a bad miss, however, it was nothing compared to the incomparable low-light of the morning – a dropped catch so ghastly that it is sure to be replayed in Christmas compilations and Twitter memes for evermore.
The moment came in Jofra Archer’s third over of the morning, with Williamson by now on 62 and easing sweetly through his gears. Archer, who has endured a tough campaign with just a solitary wicket in each of the two Tests, decided the time was ripe to roll out his variations, rather than beat a hole in the middle of an unresponsive wicket and attempt to challenge the speed gun.
So out came a superbly subtle knuckleball – Archer even changed his grip midway through his run-up, then dropped his front arm in his delivery stride to add a further layer of bafflement to what was about to come. Williamson responded with a startled prod to midwicket, raising his hand in apology to his team-mate as the bowler set off on a victory gallop, arms outstretched and smile as wide as it has been all match.
But moments later, he was obliged to look back in horror and disbelief, as Joe Denly made an unfathomable Horlicks of an chance that an under-eights fielder would have been embarrassed to let through his fingers. The ball had lobbed to him as if being returned from the slip cordon at the end of an over – and it slipped like a buttered crumpet clean through his grasp.
It was an iconically desperate moment – quite possibly the easiest chance dropped by an England fielder since Mike Gatting shelled Kiran More at Madras in 1992-93, a lob off the splice that he tried to blame on the sun in his eyes. And the reactions were priceless. Stuart Broad threw his hands to his mouth in horror, Stokes at deep midwicket turned on his heel mid-celebration and averted his gaze. Williamson himself raised a quizzical eyebrow and allowed himself a wry grin.
And the effect of that let-off on what remained of England’s competitive juices was like a drawing pin on an inflatable dinghy. Denly himself entered the attack soon afterwards for an apologetic (but actually quite serviceable) six-over spell of legspin, and Chris Woakes came and went in another economical but fruitless burst.
Aside from a Stokes bouncer that rattled Williamson on the helmet, and another iteration of the pair’s sketchy running between the wickets, the only real jeopardy for either batsman concerned the encroaching bad weather, and their own quest for milestones. Williamson suddenly upped the ante with lunch approaching, pulling a brace of boundaries through square leg to race to 96. He’ll hope the rain stays away for a moment or two longer.